Travelling to Africa has always been a dream of mine. The thought of visiting the Dark Continent has always been something that I’ve wanted to experience, ever since I was a child. Seeing elephants, lions, rhinos, and hippos (to name a few animals) up close and in person (and not in captivity), is something that one can only experience for themselves. Having never been to Africa before, and starting with a Uganda tour, it was even more intriguing!
What didn’t cross my mind before I left home was that Uganda has so much to offer. I knew a fair amount about gorilla trekking from colleagues and friends, but what I didn’t foresee was the warmth of the people, the beauty of the landscape, and the somewhat untapped potential for tourism and visitors to “The Pearl of Africa,” a term Winston Churchill gave to Uganda in his 1908 book, My African Journey.
When one thinks of seeing “the big five” (African lion, African elephant, buffalo, African leopard, and rhino), Tanzania and Kenya are often the top of the list for travellers. But for those looking to experience more than just gorilla trekking, a Uganda tour has just about it all (the chance to see “the big five” as well as over 600 of the most diverse bird species in the world – making Uganda a game and bird lovers’ paradise).
In late September, I was invited by Brussels Airlines and the Ugandan Tourist Board to spend nine amazing days touring Western and Northern Uganda, featuring gorilla trekking, safari game drives, and experiencing all that a Uganda tour has to offer.
Getting to Uganda from North America is very easy. There are daily flights on both KLM and Brussels Airlines through Amsterdam and Brussels respectively, both of which depart the major gateways in Canada and the US in the early evening (New York, Toronto, and Washington), and arrive early morning the following day, allowing for quick connections onwards to Entebbe.
Flying Business Class on Brussels Airlines (from Toronto), was a fantastic experience, and the service was top notch!
Ensuring that I had my yellow fever vaccination certificate, along with my Ugandan visa (which must be purchased online prior to your arrival, with the $50.00 USD fee payable to the customs officer at Entebbe Airport), the process of arriving in Entebbe was seamless and very easy. Within minutes I had my bag and was soon on my way to my hotel. As flights from Europe land in Entebbe in the late evening (8-9 pm local time), it’s best to overnight near the airport, and begin your trip the following morning from there.
The next morning, after waking up to the beautiful views of Lake Victoria directly adjacent to the Protea Entebbe airport hotel, I headed back to the airport for my chartered domestic flight over to Kisoro.
Flying domestically throughout Uganda on 12-seater, Cessna Grand Caravan aircraft is a great option for travellers as it allows easy and fluid transportation throughout the country, especially for those looking to maximize their time and experience. Like most countries in East Africa, travelling by road is something that must be taken with the utmost patience and with the most open of minds; roads in Uganda are, for the most part, in very bad shape, which often means that travelling a very short distance can take a very long time.
Flights are very efficient, and with a number of lodges in the western part of the country having convenient airstrips to fly into, flying is by far the best option.
My first segment was a short hop from Entebbe to Kisoro, near Bwindi Impenetrable Forest (the launching point of gorilla trekking on your Uganda tour). From Kisoro, you can easily fly up to a few other stops within Queen Elizabeth National Park and Murchison Falls, the mouth of the Nile, making each stop on your itinerary a quick and easy hour flight, compared with 5 or 6 hours by safari vehicle.
Even though the number of mountain gorillas in the wild is growing (there are currently none in captivity), the fact is, there are still only approximately 700 in existence, half of which live in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. Bwindi lies in the southwest part of the country, bordering Rwanda to the south and the Congo to the west, and is only an hour flight from Entebbe, on the edge of Rift Valley. Its mist covered hills are surrounded by Uganda’s most diverse rainforests, dating back over 25,000 years.
Each day, only a handful of people are granted permission to trek through one of the most dense, impenetrable jungle forests in the world to spend an hour with these magnificent animals (there are only 80 permits granted per day, so the “who’s done it” list is very exclusive).
I was one of these lucky people.
The most important aspect of gorilla trekking is to keep an open mind. Needless to say, if you are planning to gorilla trek, plan on it being a very physical and even emotional experience. For me, it was the most physically challenging experience that I have ever done. Words really cannot explain what you’ll experience, and frankly, you really do not know what lies ahead of you even as you set out on the trek. Essentially how it works is the reconnaissance team, who tracks and monitors the gorillas’ location, goes out in the early morning, ahead of the trekkers, to locate the gorillas as they leave their nest from the night before. Once the family you are trekking is located, from there it’s a trek and communication game between your team and the reconnaissance team off in the jungle, with you making progress slowly and surely through the jungle to reach the location of the gorillas (which could be anywhere from 1 km to 20 km from the base camp, which means of course, anywhere between one hour and potentially six hours of trekking).
Following a briefing of what to expect from the Ugandan Tourism Guides, how to act, and what the experience entails, our group of eight (which is the max allowed) was assigned a gorilla family to trek. Each of us were given the option of hiring a porter (highly advisable, all for the very low cost of only $15 USD), and from there, we were introduced to the two Ugandan Wildlife guides and the armed security team that would be accompanying us for the day. The porter is your right hand throughout the trek, carrying your day pack, water rations (everyone must have at least 4 litres each), as well as your packed lunch. He or she is there to help you through every step of the way – and I’ll be honest, my porter Ben was pushing me, pulling me, and generally helping me navigate the very treacherous terrain, which ranges from steep hillside to low valleys to flat open areas to literally machete-slicing, thick and almost impassable jungle bush.
After two and a half hours of trekking through dense, thick jungle (one way), the overwhelming smell of the gorillas, and the bugs that surround them, became more prevalent. At last, the moment was here…. seeing a silverback, a mother, and her babies only feet away, is something that will last with me forever!
No sooner than we had arrived (you’re allowed an hour max with the family you’re visiting), we had turned around and began the long trek back to the base camp.
After spending the day at the Gorilla Lodge, just outside the launch point of the gorilla trekking (where I was spending the night), I flew further north up to Mweya Safari Lodge, in Queen Elizabeth National Park, leaving the mountains and the elevation of Bwindi behind, for the much warmer and more traditional, savannah-like plains of what you’d envision most of East Africa to be like.
It was here where I first saw hippos, thousands of buffaloes, kob, and elephants grazing in the hot, afternoon sun. The Mweya Lodge, on the banks of Lake Edward, is beautiful and offers guests a relaxing experience all within a 4+ star setting.
From Mweya, I continued my northerly journey, along the Congo border, to the northernmost end of Queen Elizabeth National Park and the Paraa Lodge. Similar to Mweya, Paraa offers guests complete relaxation and the opportunity to see wildlife in its natural environment. There were giraffe, hippos, and buffalo walking the grounds of the lodge, unreserved, as there are no fences, allowing the animals to roam freely.
Murchison Falls and the mouth of the Nile is full of fishing excursions (did you know you can fish for 200 lb Nile perch!?), birding, and of course, the amazing sights of the Falls itself. Taking a Nile cruise up the Nile towards the Falls was an amazing experience, and being in the oldest and most protected areas of Uganda was something I will not soon forget. Massive in size at almost 4,000 square km, wildlife in Murchison Falls includes lions, leopards, elephants, giraffes, kob, chimps, and countless bird species – which perfectly encompasses the amazing adventures that you can experience on a Uganda tour.
After spending nearly a week in the bush, living the life of luxury at the Mweya, Paraa, and Chobe Lodges, I left the northern part of the country for the 5-hour drive south back towards the capital, Kampala, and the hustle and bustle of the largest city in the country, and by far the political and cultural centre of Uganda.
Enroute to Kampala I spent a few hours at the Zziwa Rhino Sanctuary, home to the infamous white rhino and an area where these magnificent creatures are protected and allowed to roam and grow in a protected environment. The experience was amazing, as we were allowed to walk literally within 50 feet of these rhinos. Truly an unforgettable experience on my Uganda tour!
As I continued south towards Kampala, with the lights and pollution of the city in the distance, I soon realized that the quiet calm of the bush, the Falls, the Nile, and the peaceful gorillas back in Bwindi were behind me. Experiencing Kampala is something that one must really take with a grain of salt, as like a number of other East African cities (Nairobi to name one), traffic and the chaos that ensues while moving around the city is in one word, abominable.
Kampala is a city rich with history, and it’s somewhat true that to this day, 40 years after the fact, Kampala, and parts of Uganda overall, still sit under the shadow of Idi Amin and his regime of the mid-70s to mid-80s. The armed presence is noticeable, and the traffic and congestion of everyday life is unforgettable, all adding that unmistakable charm to an amazing country!
Arriving for my last two nights of my Uganda tour at the Serena Kampala was breathtaking, and a refreshing getaway from the madness that is Kampala itself. Sitting on a huge, tropical like setting, surrounded by a high wall ensuring top security for its guests, the Serena is a 5-star hotel and boasts a resort-like atmosphere and includes a huge outdoor pool and gardens, a full restaurant, a gorgeous lobby with a meandering river, and beautifully furnished rooms and suites – all providing guests a taste of luxury within a downtown city setting.
Once known as the Nile Hotel, home to Amin and his men, and used for interrogations and rumoured torture tactics in the late 70s, the Serena has gone through millions of dollars in renovations, but its historic past is well documented. The hotel as it was then is virtually unnoticeable, and a stay at the Serena Kampala, like other Serena properties in Africa, was a pleasure, and a welcomed experience at the end of an amazing 9 days in Uganda.
For those visiting on a Uganda tour, the fact is, there is so much more to see and do than just gorilla trekking. From fishing in the Nile, to birding and seeing the Big Five, the possibilities are endless. The chance to see everything from leopards to elephants to giraffe roaming free, in an intimate setting, is second to none. For those wanting to visit East Africa and enjoy their own game viewing, a Uganda tour is an amazing option for the ultimate wildlife safari experience!